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Protecting the Bill of Rights in Utah since 1958

From the Capitol to the Streets: Let's Reform the Police

12 February 2015 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

UAPV1Recent incidents from New York City to Ferguson to Salt Lake City and Saratoga Springs highlight the growing perception that something is dreadfully wrong with our policing systems. 

By Karen McCreary, Executive Director. This article was first published in the Liberty Reporter: 2015 Winter Newsletter >>

Recent incidents from New York City to Ferguson to Salt Lake City and Saratoga Springs highlight the growing perception that something is dreadfully wrong with our policing systems. Statistics gathered by the FBI confirm that officer involved shootings have increased. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Erin Alberty recently published an article concluding that officer involved shootings were the second most common type of homicide in Utah, second only to intimate partner violence. Hundreds of police departments across the country, including some in Utah, arrest black people at shockingly disproportionate rates. Moreover, we have witnessed local police departments increasing their deployment of SWAT teams for seemingly routine tasks such as serving search warrants, a factor in the increasing use of excessive and deadly force. These incidents and the resulting uproar provide Americans with an opportunity to change the culture of policing. The present culture has often led to mistrust between law enforcement and communities, particularly among people of color and low-income communities. Frequently the courts and internal systems of discipline have provided little or no public accountability for misbehavior or bad policy. 

The ACLU of Utah has been working to improve and reform current policing practices.  We promote solutions that build trust, improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and advance a culture of transparency.  To achieve these outcomes, we believe that the police must engage all community residents, including youth, to help define a role for police that takes into account the need for public safety and respects the rights of all. We need to move away from an “us versus them” policing approach to one that is community oriented. 

In order to bridge the gap between the community and the police within that community, we need to have more information.  Presently, there is no uniform statewide method to collect and report data about stops, frisks, searches, citations, arrests, excessive uses of forces, and justifiable homicide.  Without such information, it is difficult to quantify problematic trends and practices. A uniform system to collect and report information across Utah will promote transparency and allow agencies and policy makers to spot and resolve problems. 

The ACLU of Utah and its allies successfully worked to pass HB 185 last year, which requires Utah law enforcement agencies to produce reports whenever they forcibly enter a home or building, or deploy a SWAT team. The law requires that agencies collect and report on 16 different data points on an annual basis to the legislature. Utah became the second state in the nation to pass legislation requiring this type of law enforcement transparency. The ACLU of Utah was also instrumental in last year’s successful passage of HB 70 to rein in the use of no-knock forcible entries by police, a victory we continue to work to build on this year. 

For the interests of the community to be understood by the police that work within that community, we need lines of communication between civilians and agencies. Police departments in Utah do not have statewide standards governing how they receive and react to complaints from the public. Our forth-coming report Opportunities for Trust Building: Overview and Recommendations for Our Law Enforcement’s Public Complaint Process illustrates the troubling state of the community complaint processes throughout the State.  If police agencies do not have clear and equitable policies to handle complaints, they are effectively shutting out the voice of the people they swore to protect and serve, and missing opportunities to correct officer misbehavior or bad department policy or practice. 

Communication and cooperation between civilians and sworn officers is needed for public safety.  However, of all the over 100 state law enforcement agencies in Utah, only Salt Lake City and West Valley City have formal civilian review boards. By providing input and oversight from community members outside the departments, civilian review boards promote community policing and ensure community engagement and dialogue. Utah lags far behind most states in this regard.  We seek to ensure that police departments not only establish civilian review boards, but also empower those boards with substantial authority, including subpoena power and independent disciplinary authority. The ACLU of Utah will be hosting several workshops on civilian review boards in the coming months to encourage the formation of these boards across our state. Police agencies can charge their civilian review boards to regularly analyze data on a range of police department practices to help identify systemic issues, such as potential unjustified racial disparities in enforcement practices.  With the proper tools, civilian review boards can bring community oversight and trust of policing. 

A final challenge is that law enforcement agencies across Utah are starting to use body cameras without policies in place to ensure that the cameras are used to their full potential to protect rights, and not only as another tool for surveillance.  Police departments should implement body-worn cameras with appropriate policies to ensure transparency, privacy protections, and uniform usage. The ACLU of Utah and its allies are working in this legislative session to establish such parameters in Utah law.

For more on the ACLU of Utah’s work to reform police practices visit our website at www.acluutah.org/police-practices

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(Photos used with permission from Utah Against Police Violence Facebook pageTOP: Protestors against police violence take over State Street in downtown Salt Lake City. ABOVE: Utahns rally outside of the Wallace F. Bennett Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City last summer to protest police killings in Utah.  

This post will be published in the 2015 Winter Liberty Reporter, the newsletter of the ACLU of Utah.